One of the proposed solutions to the problem of evil or the problem of divine hiddenness is that the god in question cannot violate free will. Suffering exists on Earth as a function of mankind’s fallen nature as a result of a free decision, and it is against the Christian god’s nature to interfere with the free will of the agents involved regarding this decision. This being also can’t manifest in plainly observable reality, because that would make this being obviously existent, and that would interfere with a person’s ability to choose to believe in this entity or not*, as they would be essentially forced into believing.
This is often in response to a tragedy due to some clearly evil actions. Say that in your hometown, an active shooter holds up a store and ends up maliciously shooting and killing a child. If there is a god of sufficient moral character and power to stop such an event, then any reasonable person should be able to question why this wasn’t prevented. Why did the god allow an innocent life to be taken from us? The answer is that it was the shooter’s free will to choose to pull the trigger and kill the child. It would be against this god’s nature to prevent interfering with the free will of the shooter, even if that causes tragic consequences.
I find this curious, because there are at least a few examples in the Bible of people being protected from the harm of actions of others. Many atheists like to bring up that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus, which is a good example. However, you don’t even need to change the mental state of the agents involved to protect someone from harm in the same way that a deity could prevent a shooter from killing a child.
For example, later in Exodus, God protects the Israelites in a variety of manners. When the Pharaoh’s army is coming en masse to recapture and enslave the Israelites, God directs a cloud to come between the Pharaoh’s army and the Israelites. During the night, it provides light for the Israelites and darkness for the Pharaoh. God throws down a pillar of fire to throw the Egyptians into confusion. The chariots end up being jammed so the Egyptians have trouble with their pursuit. And, of course, the entirety of Pharaoh’s army is drowned by the end of the story.
So, clearly God has no compulsions about killing people to save people he cares about. But is that even necessary to protect people?
In Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar throws Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into a burning furnace, yet they end up completely unscathed. Did God interfere with the King’s free will, where he clearly wanted to punish the three men by penalty of death?
Does God interfere with Abraham when he clearly intended to go through on his “test” to kill his son?
I have to note that the concept of libertarian free will is completely incoherent to me, but I have to address what people mean when they say that free will cannot be violated. As far as I can tell, there are two ways this free will violation could be achieved. One is through altering free agents’ thoughts and desires. The other way is to interfere with their free actions in such a way that they are able to carry out their thoughts and desires, but the intended result is prevented. I think a case can easily made that God does the former, but you do not even need to alter human intentions to prevent suffering. God clearly performs the latter in the Bible, and changes physical reality and matter external to free agents’ thoughts and desires, and achieves the goal of protecting people from harm.
I’d be remiss to say that Christians claim that their god interferes with the world in such a manner that changes people’s behavior. The Las Vegas shooter was claimed to be God’s judgment on the degradation of America. Hurricanes are often said to be caused by God’s judgment of sexual immorality (the crime of loving someone despite egregiously having genitals that match yours) or abortion, and it’d be hard to argue that citizens in this area don’t change their behavior or actions as a result of natural disasters like these. Christians claim that their god behaves in ways that alters are actions all the time. Does this seem like they are claiming that God actively meddles with the free will of people on Earth? It seems to me that they are ok with God taking some actions that change how we behave, but claim he is powerless to prevent others.
Clearly, Christianity is not a monolith, and there are plenty of Christians who think God enacting natural disasters on punishments for being gay is almost as absurd as I do. However, it’s worth pointing out that this view is incompatible with saying that the god of the Bible doesn’t interfere due to not wanting to alter free will.
Ultimately, free will is a very poor defense for the abdication of the responsibility to prevent suffering. The god described in the Bible clearly is capable of interfering with free will on some level. And in some sense, altering reality to protect people isn’t really interfering with free will at all. At best, this seems to be a post-hoc justification that wasn’t really thought out very well.
*We are forced into our beliefs no matter what, as a result of our knowledge and experiences and how they inform our worldview. I couldn’t choose to, say, will myself into stopping believing in gravity. That being said, many who believe in free will believe that beliefs are a choice, and it is their arguments I am trying to address in this post.
**I think it’s patently obvious that if you end someone’s consciousness and existence, you are necessarily altering their free will in the most fundamental way by eradicating it. However, I am trying to argue on Christian terms.